“Philistine. Uncouth. Bawdy. Crass.” These are probably a few of the adjectives you thought of after reading that title. However, despite the risk I’m taking of becoming a social pariah by disclosing such a personal sentiment, I’m sticking to my guns: I like Merlot.
Working at a wine store throughout college, customers would surreptitiously approach the counter, hood-up, sunglasses on, and ask if I could — looks right, peeks left — point them in the direction of the…Merlot. Gladly, I’d send them in the direction of the Merlot section, wedged between the overbearing Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, each year shrinking like a Victorian woman trying to fit into a corset.
It didn’t always have to be this way. Merlot drinkers didn’t always have to hide in dimly-lit basements and dives, evading persecution like 1st century Christians. There was a period of enlightenment — a time when sitcoms were funny and Nazis were still afraid to be Nazis (if you’re sick of hearing about how great the ’90s were, stop reading now) — called the 1990s, when Merlot was the exalted ruby nectar it deserves to be.
Merlot is one of the six Bordeaux varietals (along with Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carménère), used in the esteemed blends of (arguably) the greatest wine region in the world. It is especially notable in “Right Bank” wines, where the grape typically makes up a majority of the blend. Moreover, Merlot is actually the most planted varietal in all of France, but has thrived in countries like Australia, Chile, Argentina, Italy (where it is an integral part of “Super Tuscans”), and, of course, Los Estados Unidos.
In fact, Robert Mondavi — the father of American winemaking — understood the varietal’s potential as an easy-to-drink wine and had the grape imported en masse to California. This was during the infancy of wide-spread consumption when Americans overwhelmingly stuck to spirits and beer; in 2013, the USA dethroned France as the world leader in wine consumption by volume, so Mr. Mondavi must have been on to something.
That alone should be something to celebrate — Merlot got more people drinking wine. Part supple, fruit-forward, and less tannic than its counterparts, partially because it’s easy to pronounce (link), Merlot can be enjoyed in a Red Blend (I guarantee you drank plenty of it during the Red Blend craze of 2014–2015) or as a single varietal — have you tried a lone Cabernet Franc? It’s like licking an ashtray.
But as the ’90s came to an end and we entered the new millennium, Merlot sales began to fall — with the coup de grace delivered in the 2004 oenophilic film, Sideways.
Miles’ perfectly exclaimed line that will live in wine-producing infamy — had been directly linked to a steep and steady decline in Merlot sales throughout the aughts. And while simple narratives are seldom completely accurate, this case being no different, it is difficult to ignore the simultaneous lightning-fast ascendance of Pinot Noir — Miles’ obsession — after Sideways’ release.
Perhaps you thought you would get through an article without it mentioning the swarm of locusts on a perpetual tirade to ruin American institutions, also known as the Millennials, but I am remiss to tell you this article does not buck the trend. Like “starter homes” and bars of soap and banks and fabric softener and designer handbags and gyms and oil and football and diamonds and department stores and motorcycles and Applebee’s, Millennials are killing the wine industry — at least the old way wine was priced and marketed. As a member of this most maligned generation, I can’t tell you the last time — if ever — I or a friend bought a bottle of wine based off its Robert Parker point score. Instead, we buy because a friend recommended it, because its organic, fair-trade, or from a country where we studied abroad. Most likely, we buy it because it’s affordable. A Boomer close to my heart once told me: “Don’t buy a bottle below forty bucks.” Forty bucks?! That’s thirteen times more than my average.
Calculators down. That’s $3 a bottle. Yes, I’m definitely on the extreme low side — most Millennials spend between $10–15 — but I’m also a law student. And everyone knows that Law Student = High Stress — Money, so three-buck Chuck is basically a Godsend. But here’s the thing, Charles Shaw’s Merlot ($3) is absolutely frickin’ delicious. I implore you, buy a bottle, pop open the cork, and stick your nose in it. Don’t be shy, really shove it in there, and breathe.
Are you getting nutty overtones with hints of vanilla frosting? Pour a glass, swirl, sip. Is it just fruity enough without being saccharine? With just enough tannins to remind you that you’re drinking alcohol? Does it remind you that 2018 is a year for goodness and hope? That, my friends, is what compelled me to write this article and disclose my dark secret. Maybe I’m trying too hard to make it 1997 again, but I think it’s time Merlot got the popular comeback it deserves.
Ben D’Alessio is a writer and law student in New Orleans, LA. He is the author of the novels Binge Until Tragedy and Lunchmeat. Both are available on Amazon and the publisher’s page. 25% of profits are donated to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).